A Cook County agency designed to give new life to distressed houses is getting into the commercial property game, with its first such project just blocks from the site of the future Obama Presidential Center.
After acquiring the deed last month to the dilapidated former Washington Park National Bank building in Woodlawn, the Cook County Land Bank tonight will hold the first of three community meetings about the property to gather feedback on what it should become.
The 94-year-old structure on the southwest corner of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue is the first commercial test for the agency, launched by the Cook County Board in 2013 to help address the area’s massive inventory of foreclosed homes.
The agency says the 33,000-square-foot building next to the CTA Green Line Cottage Grove station has been vacant for more than two decades. The goal is for the property to be appraised at several million dollars after redevelopment, which would set a new high mark by the Land Bank’s metric of “community wealth created”—the difference between what it spent to acquire a property and what it’s worth after it’s rehabbed and has a family or business occupying it.
“This is a major first for us,” said Land Bank Executive Director Rob Rose, who joined the agency in 2015. “This is right in line with our mission.”
The Land Bank has focused mostly on speeding up the turnaround of distressed residential properties, mostly on the city’s South and West sides, by acquiring them and clearing away tax liens and other debt before selling them to developers. The homes are then rehabbed and ideally sold, restoring their property tax value to the county.
As of the end of 2017, the Land Bank had redeveloped 214 homes and also has helped turnaround four industrial properties, Rose said.
The agency is taking a similar approach to the Washington Park commercial property, which is about a mile west of where the Obama Foundation plans to build the president’s 22-acre legacy campus—a factor Rose called the “icing on the cake to know that this was the project we should take on.”
But instead of immediately submitting a request for proposals from developers, the Land Bank is running a community-led process with the help of the Metropolitan Planning Council, an urban planning and policy-focused nonprofit for the region.
The community meetings over the next few weeks will help shape the desired use for the run-down building before the Land Bank puts out an RFP in April that will lay out certain community guidelines any prospective developer must stick to. That’s different from the typical development process, in which developers submit plans before presenting them for feedback at community meetings.
“In many cases, the objections of the community are not incorporated into the final design, and in a lot of cases it’s just to check the box that ‘We talked to the community,'” Rose said. “We thought, why don’t we change that paradigm and incorporate that and get input early . . . that way, regardless of who is selected (to redevelop the property), we know they’re going to have community input embedded in what they do.”
Rose said the Land Bank has put about $5,000 into its acquisition of the Washington Park building so far, and he expects it will have spent more than $30,000 on it to secure the building and commission structural and engineering reports before issuing its RFP.
The Land Bank set the Washington Park bank opportunity in motion in December 2015 when it bought an option to acquire the deed to the property in a scavenger sale.
The agency spent months waiting out a redemption period during which the previous owner could have paid off the $3.7 million in back taxes and penalties on the property to retain ownership. When that didn’t happen, it cleared away the debt and last month was awarded the deed.
As of the end of 2017, Land Bank projects had created a total of $17.7 million in community wealth, up from $5.4 million at the end of 2016, according to Rose. He projects that total will surpass $35 million at the end of 2018.
The Land Bank reported $16.2 million in revenue during its 2017 fiscal year, which ended in November. That was up from $13.7 million in fiscal 2016, according to a Dec. 7 report.
The agency has a headcount of 12 and is funded by its revenue from property sales as well as grant money from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and proceeds from a community development block grant funded by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.